We watch him every week, slaloming his way through Spanish defences and planting the ball into the net. He does it with alarming regularity. He breaks records. He is adored by regulars at the Nou Camp, home of the mighty Barcelona.
There’s no disputing that Lionel Messi is one of the top two players in world football today, but if there’s one thing missing from his considerable catalogue of achievements, it is a sparkling performance in a World Cup. If he does that, he will rightly earn comparison with greats like Pele and Maradona, if he isn’t already being benchmarked against such luminaries.
But the time and place is right for Messi to really stamp his authority on a major global international competition in Brazil this summer, says Spanish football expert and Messi biographer, Guillem Balague.
“The location is good, the Argentine team is built around him and he is at the peak of his career. He is very frustrated about his lack of relative success with Argentina, but he may never have a better chance than in Brazil 2014,” he said at a book-launch event in Hitchin, Hertfordshire.
Argentina will be one of the favourites for Brazil 2014 and with Messi over his injury problems and scoring goals for fun once more, he will hopefully go to Brazil energized and fit. He may even benefit from his enforced lay-off earlier this season.
Balague also hinted that Messi, whose image is one of a gentle, easy-going and unassuming character, is as high maintenance as any big-time player and very aware of himself as a star performer. Some consider that Barcelona has become something of a “strikers’ graveyard” because of the need to accommodate the style of Messi.
Often, the front-man has got in the way of his weaving runs. But Balague believes criticism of the world’s favourite number 10 is inappropriate. “You cannot blame Messi for this, you blame the coach. Messi had to be allowed to grow – and he has grown spectacularly – and some players were not necessarily happy to make way.” Samuel Eto’o and Zlatan Ibrahimovic were supposedly both at odds with this, but David Villa was far more flexible.
Ibrahimovic claimed that he was frozen out at Barca because Messi wanted to change position, a similar accusation from supporters of Eto’o, who was frequently pushed out wide. It sounded as though some egos got a little bruised at Barcelona, but Messi’s goalscoring record more than justified the decision.
From humble origins, Messi has been on a focused path that has seen him sacrifice a normal family life and come under intense media attention. Balague revealed that failure has never been an option: “He [Messi] doesn’t know what he would have done if he hadn’t made it. But this is what makes people like him special. You do not contemplate being unsuccessful – you deny it and forget it as a possibility.”
Messi by Guillem Balague is published by Orion